Rebecca Long revisits Tove Jansson’s ‘The Summer Book’
Tove Jansson may be best known for the Scandinavian surrealism of her Moomin books but, with this poignant and evocative account of summers spent in the Gulf of Finland, she established herself as a principal writer of fiction. ‘The Summer Book’ has never been out of print in Scandinavia since 1972 and was her favourite of the books she wrote for adults. For a people who spend so much of the year in the dark, its allure is obvious.
The structure of the novel itself echoes the passing of the months of summer during the years spent by the main characters – Sophia, her father and her grandmother – on their small island home. The intricate, understated way in which they get along become the basis for a series of insightful observations on youth, old age, memory, nature and the delicate balance between life and death.
The microcosmic world of the island becomes all the more vivid and authentic when we realise that it is based on a real island discovered by Jansson and her brother in 1947. They built a house on it, to which Jansson would return until she was 71.
The microcosmic world of the island becomes all the more vivid and authentic when we realise that it is based on a real island discovered by Jansson and her brother in 1947.
In the novel, she finds inspiration in the bare rock of the island; her surroundings become the setting for a series of endearing, thought-provoking episodes. The night Sophia spends alone in her father’s tent provokes her grandmother’s memories of her own youth and leads her to question the relevance and meaning of her experiences in a world that has changed so much. During the salvage operation that takes place on Midsummer Eve nothing is ‘simply lost’ and we realise that the core meaning of the novel speaks towards a harmony and a peace which even Grandmother herself can only barely recognize. The relationship between Sophia and her grandmother lies at the heart of the book, with the older woman’s brusque, gruff humour illuminating the self contained world the girl inhabits. They share a fierce yet understated love and it is their respect for each other’s desire for independence which ultimately draws them so close. Jansson tells a deeply life-affirming story which speaks of an understanding and a love that not only encompasses the island but somehow originates within it.